What are the requirements to pay union dues in your workplace?  Recent legal developments have caused some confusion and this will attempt to answer some basic questions.

First, some essential history.  For most workplaces, the obligation to pay union dues to your union representative (assuming you had one) began in 1935 with the passage of the National Labor Relations Act, our nation’s principal labor law governing employment in the private sector.  That law legalized the “union shop” and allowed unions and employers to agree to make dues payments a condition of employment.  If the bargaining contract covering your workplace contained a so-called union security clause, you would be required to pay normal union dues and assessments or be subject to discharge.

The purpose of the union shop – then and now – was to strengthen the ability of unions to negotiate on an even level with more powerful employers.  Requiring all employees covered by a union contract to pay union dues gave considerable financial stability to the union representative.  If union representation was “free” to all workers, it would be far more difficult, if not impossible, for a union to have the financial wherewithal necessary to be an effective bargaining representative.

There was considerable resistance to the union shop from employers and their Republican politicians.  When the Republicans took Congressional power following WWII, one of the first things they did was pass the Taft-Hartley amendments to the NLRA.  These amendments considerably weakened the original statute.  Among other things, they provided that states could pass laws outlawing the union shop.  Many states did, so that, today, we have a legal checkerboard where some states, like California and New York, continue to allow the union shop while others, like Arizona and Georgia forbid it.  These latter states are often called “right to work” states, or more accurately, “right to work – for less” states.

Legally speaking, “right to work” means nothing more than that an employer cannot require payment of union dues as a condition of employment.  It does not outlaw union membership, union organizing, or union contracts, it just makes those things more difficult to obtain.

In figuring out your obligation to pay union dues or not, you must first know whether or not you are working in a union shop state or a right to work – for less state.  If you work in a RTW-FL state, you have no obligation to pay union dues as a condition of employment, even if your workplace is covered by a union contract.  Of course, if too many of your fellow employees refuse to pay dues, your union representative will be weakened and, because of that, your wages and benefits will likely be far less than what your employer could otherwise afford to pay you.  This fact is borne out by statistics that have repeatedly showed that employees working in union shop states earn far more than their fellows working in RTW-FL states, even if their employer is the same company.

If you are living in a union shop states, it gets more complicated.  Because of continuing legal and political attacks on the union shop, the US Supreme Court has issued a number of decisions that have retreated from the original NLRA concept.  The Court first held that the union membership requirement does not actually mean that an employee has to join the union, just that the employee must pay an amount equal to the regular dues paid by union members.   In the Court’s words, “Membership as a condition of employment is whittled down to its financial core.”

In a later decision, the infamous Beck case, the Supreme Court went further and declared that the legal obligation of “financial core” dues payers does not include “the obligation to support union activities beyond those germane to collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance adjustment.”  The Court permitted nonmembers to “object” to paying for such things as union political contributions.  Objectors were given the right to challenge a union’s declaration of what expenses were chargeable to nonmembers and what were not.

Following these Court decisions, the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency charged with administering the NLRA, issued its own decisions spelling out the legal obligations of unions in enforcing union security clauses.  According to the NLRB, unions must give employees notice of their rights (a) to join or not to join the union, (b) to object to paying for union activities unrelated to collective bargaining and contract administration, (c) to have sufficient information to enable them to decide whether or not to object, including an audit-verified amount of chargeable expenses, and (d) to be informed of any internal union procedures for filing objections.   Employees who fail or refuse to pay required dues amounts must also be given sufficient written notice of their default before the union may request their discharge.

This all sounds very complicated – and it is – but it boils down to this:  an employee covered by an enforceable union security agreement (i.e. working in a union shop state) who chooses not to join, or to resign from, the union remains obligated to pay the union an amount equivalent to the normal dues paid by union members unless the employee objects to paying for union activities that are not related to collective bargaining.  Objectors must continue to pay that verified portion of dues that is chargeable to collective bargaining and related activities.

Finally, a word about “checkoff.”  Most union contracts, in both union shop and RTW-FL states, allow union members to pay their dues through convenient payroll deduction.  The employee must authorize such deduction in writing, typically on an authorization card signed by the employee.  According to the NLRB, in a union shop state, employees cannot be required to authorize checkoff and must be allowed an alternative for paying required dues.  But in a RTW-FL state, because union membership and payment of dues is completely voluntary, unions may require their members to authorize checkoff.  The NLRB allows employees to revoke their checkoff authorizations at certain times of the year, but the authorization itself is considered to be a private contract between the employee the union that is legally enforceable.  Enough said.